· Styling the eighteenth century in the twenty-first ·
It’s been said that costumes in historical films reflect more on the current times than they do on the period being portrayed. It seems that The Favourite costume designer Sandy Powell was aware of this, and, in fact, leaned into it while designing the costumes for the Oscar, BAFTA, and Golden Globe nominated film. A series of costumes from the film currently on display at Kensington Palace help drive this home as colour palettes and modern fabrics are highlighted in person.
The Favourite examines the dynamic between early 18th century Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch, and her two famous “favourites,” Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough – yes, that Churchill – and Abigail Hill, later Masham. It does so in a highly stylised manner: baroque music plays throughout, adding to the suspense, and comedic timing helps this actually quite tragic story become very funny.
Adding to this stylised tone are the costumes. Powell created all of the costumes in the span of six weeks while also working on Mary Poppins Returns. Working on a tight timeline, Powell chose to keep it relatively simple: after examining the historical shape of clothing during the period, she stuck to the same shape for the women’s costumes throughout. The only difference is the material and embellishment.
Even among this, she kept it quite simple. Though there are some exceptions towards the beginning, most of the costumes in the film are all black and white. As the film progresses, this becomes more pronounced and you begin to wonder if there was ever any colour in the costumes. This creates a truly striking aesthetic for the film that effectively draws attention away from the costumes and to the costumes simultaneously. Of course, colours were worn during the period so this is one of those instances when the costumes reflect more on the current zeitgeist than the historical period.
Powell was well aware of what she was doing. She told British Vogue, “We weren’t making a conventional historical film. Silhouette-wise, there is nothing wrong with how the costumes were made. But, fabric-wise, artistic license was taken. It adds to the film.” Just as the soundtrack induced anxiety as the film went on, the shift to all black and white provided a starkness to the otherwise opulent settings. Powell continued, “It was a risk doing everything in black and white, but luckily the simplicity of the costumes paired well with the sumptuousness of Hatfield House, where we shot.”
Hatfield House was used for filming scenes that actually took place in Kensington Palace. Here, the costumes are on display in a long gallery in the oldest part of the palace that resembles the Long Gallery at Hatfield where many scenes in the film took place. Just down the hall in Kensington Palace is the actual room where Anne and Sarah had their final argument. Along the walls are contemporary portraits, juxtaposed next to the costumes. It is in seeing the garments in real life where you begin to truly see the genius behind the design.
One of the subtle geniuses is the wardrobe of Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). Arriving at the palace, she is a downtrodden cousin of Sarah’s and begs for a job in the household. She is first placed in the kitchen where she wears the same uniform as the other maids. Further proving the costumes-reflect-today theory, these uniforms were made of denim sourced at local charity shops. Denim is traditionally a work fabric, but it wouldn’t have been around in Abigail’s day, so this is one of the ways in which Powell took liberties with the historical accuracy of the costumes.
Abigail steadily works her way up through the ranks and is promoted to a lady in waiting. Here, Powell again used contemporary fabric and nods to other professions when designing Abigail’s lady in waiting costume. She told Kensington Palace, “I decided to make them black in the tradition of maid’s outfits.” Indeed, looking at the costume, one is reminded of a French maid’s outfit. Of the material, Powell said, “It’s made from embossed and printed black-on-black African fabric, bought in Brixton Market.”
After marrying one of the Queen’s gentlemen in Kensington Palace, Abigail eventually ousted Sarah as the Queen’s favourite. At this point, her attire again changes, but the black and white remains. This costume is much more opulent and embellished, with laser cut decoration showing off the two-tone palette. Speaking to Vogue, Powell said of Abigail’s metamorphosis, “After she becomes a lady of the court, I wanted her to look as though she’d gone too far and too over-the-top. I tried to make her appear a bit vulgar.”
We’ve talked a lot about the women’s costumes, but in some ways, the men’s costumes were more interesting, at least in terms of concept. Throughout the movie, you begin to notice the men’s wigs getting bigger and their makeup getting more exaggerated. The men themselves begin to act more and more hysterical. Again, reflecting the current zeitgeist, the men are portrayed in a way that women are typically featured in historical films: the women – Queen Anne, Sarah, and, later, Abigail are pulling the strings behind the scenes – hold the power while the men are shown to be puppets and focused on raucous pastimes.
Again, this has basis in fact: men did wear big wigs, makeup, and more embellishment during this period. But The Favourite took it to another level. “[Director] Yorgos [Lanthimos] stipulated in the very beginning that he did not want any makeup on the women and that he wanted the hair to look completely natural. The men, on the other hand, needed to be these ridiculous peacocks,” Powell told Vogue. “We wanted to show that although the men in that period did dress like that with colorful jackets and giant wigs, and they had important roles to play, in The Favourite, they are like fluff in the background, the way that women usually are in period films. They are usually the decorative bits to the men.”
Seeing the costumes in the context of Kensington Palace – where Anne lived and actually died – brings home the story. Queen Anne was an incredibly tragic monarch, losing 17 children before dying childless, ending the Stuart dynasty. The film portrays how this could have affected her mental health. It speculates on the nature of her relationships with both Sarah and Abigail, but also demonstrates what a strong leader she ended up being.
If you can, definitely head to a cinema to see The Favourite. Funny, poignant, and with three strong female leads, you won’t be disappointed. Then, if you’re lucky enough to be in the London area, head to Kensington Palace (or Hampton Court Palace, where the kitchen scenes were shot) to see these costumes on display. It helps pick up on the nuances of Powell’s costume design and gives you more perspective on Anne, Sarah, and Abigail.
Just try to avoid looking like a badger while you’re there.
Costumes from The Favouriteare on display at both Kensington Palace and Hampton Court Palace until 10 March 2019.